Washington — Entering the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission at a time of ample debate over its natural gas project review process, the newest Republican commissioner is stressing the need for a robust up-front vetting of issues but staying quiet for now on contentious climate questions.
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FERC's approach to gas projects is potentially at an inflection point, with the change in leadership to Democratic control. A revised approach could affect timelines for pipelines connecting production to demand centers, as well as LNG export projects.
In a wide-ranging interview Feb. 3, Mark Christie, former chair of the Virginia State Corporation Commission, said his priorities would be the same regardless of who was president — one stressing the need for an energy transition to help combat climate change or one emphasizing oil and gas production and advancing midstream projects.
Addressing his top priorities, Christie said grid reliability and protecting consumers from paying too much for electricity, including related transmission costs, are top of mind.
As to the gas pipeline certificate policy and procedures, Christie said he is not passing judgment on FERC's approach, having only arrived at the commission several weeks earlier.
Avoiding collateral attacks
Christie lauded the approach taken during his 17-year experience in Virginia reviewing the siting of infrastructure.
"The point is, have a comprehensive proceeding, litigate all the issues that need to be litigated, and then if the commission issues a certificate, stand behind it," he said. "Make sure there's robust public participation. We always did that in Virginia, including allowing a liberal intervention by intervenors if they even want to intervene in the case."
Such an approach could help bring finality, he said, noting the state had a good record of being upheld on appeal.
"Whatever those substantive criteria are that govern the proceeding, let's get them litigated and resolved during the proceedings. Don't let those be the constant subject of collateral attack after the proceeding is over. That's how you get these endless, ongoing cases," Christie said.
He also stressed the importance of being fair to stakeholders, ranging from those ready to invest in infrastructure, to opponents of projects and other intervenors. "Fairness to me means finality," Christie said.
Christie is beginning his term at a time when major natural gas pipelines have faced substantial pushback and litigation. And he shared the view of many renewable energy researchers, analysts and legal experts that major transmission lines needed to support a buildout of renewables could face the same headwinds that have hit the midstream sector.
FERC does not have the same authority over siting electricity infrastructure that it does for pipelines. Transmission is something left mostly to the states under the Federal Power Act, a reason for the fragmented nature of the US power grid. But major transmission lines often require some sort of federal permitting, which triggers reviews under the National Environmental Policy Act. Christie put emphasis on a thorough review process as a protection against infrastructure projects getting held up.
"Whatever the facility is, and whatever the agency may be, the obstacles and the cost of relitigating issues due to collateral attacks — all these types of things are potentially applicable to any infrastructure project," Christie said.
Glick, the incoming chairman, has pushed for greater quantification of greenhouse gas emissions and consideration of climate impacts in gas project decisions, and the newest Democrat, Allison Clements, backed following court instructions about considering the amount and significance of GHG emissions in an interview Feb. 2, as well. Glick's challenge, for the time being, may be getting consensus among the full five-member panel.
Former Republican Commissioner Bernard McNamee, whom Christie replaced, held that considering indirect upstream or downstream emissions, outside of certain narrow circumstances, was beyond what was envisioned in the governing statutes.
But Commissioner Neil Chatterjee, also a Republican, has indicated a willingness to compromise on the issue, so as to allow continued progress on gas projects, despite his concern about legal risk he believes may be added.
Christie for now said he hasn't yet been called upon to decide on that issue in a case at FERC. He emphasized that he approached the matter as a legal question about what the National Environmental Policy Act requires and upon which he had not yet formed a conclusion.
"I will, obviously, since it's going to be a salient issue here," he said.